Sgt. Bill was a rare cop. He used to park his cruiser in a vacant lot near one of our illegally-placed landing docks, and watch the boats go by. I first met him under very unpleasant circumstances, at a wake we were having for a recently drowned year-old child.
We had taken a barge to Schoonmaker beach and run it aground purposely. The Schoonmaker property was not technically a public beach, but at the time nobody bothered people who came and left by boat. Dean had a generator on the barge and we used it to power the electric band equipment.
A barbecue fire was roaring on the beach, we had three kegs of beer and gallons of Red Mountain, and the sorrow over the child’s death was being exorcised. It was a great relief to everyone to be partying after the period of mourning.
Someone somewhere complained about the loud music, and the cops showed up, twenty or thirty of them in full riot costume. Emotions were running high that day. A number of people were immediately ready to take the cops on, and started cursing and throwing bottles at them. I got on the mike and convinced my friends to cool it, then jumped down onto the beach and walked over to the head cop, Sgt. Bill. This was not his first time at a Redlegs party, and he looked almost scared. I had never really spoken with him before.
“Jesus, you guys,” he said, looking ludicrous in his riot helmet. “Can't you just not play so loud, so we don’t have to go through this bullshit?”
“Look, Sergeant,” I said. “This isn't any regular party. See that woman over there? And the guy she’s with? Their baby died two weeks ago. He drowned. Maybe you can understand how important it is for these people to get their feelings out. We’ve all got kids and we all live on the water. Do you get what I’m saying? We don’t want trouble any more than you do.”
“Well, can’t you PLEASE make the music quieter?” He was nearly in tears. “They'll have my ass if there's another complaint. Jesus. Their BABY died?” The cops left and didn’t return. Maybe we really did turn the volume down.
After that I started seeing him parked in the vacant lot near the Dredge. At first I just said hello, but after a while we started talking. With drugs and paraphernalia in my pocket, and a knife on my belt, I would sit in the police car with him and talk about life on the water, and rock & roll music. Once, we had a conversation about whether a knife is a weapon or a tool. He was trained to consider it a weapon. Sailors as well as hunters, loggers and so forth carry knives openly. The blades are indispensable tools, necessary in everyday life. If a line gets fouled around your leg and there’s an anchor attached to it that was just thrown overboard, you better be quick and your knife better be sharp. The sergeant saw my point.
He was an authority on ‘5O’s music. Once he demonstrated a subtle syncopated inflection that Ricky Nelson used in “Be Bop Baby.” Sgt. Bill had a good singing voice, and a real feeling for music.
The last time I saw him, Salty and I were walking along the old railroad tracks by the Gerhardt sheet metal factory. It was four in the morning. We were checking dumpsters and Goodwill boxes on our way to the 7-11 for junk food. Just walking down the road minding our own business, you might say, when two cop cars drove up to us with their lights flashing. Sgt. Bill was driving one of them.
“Oh, no, not YOU guys.”
“Yep, us guys, Bill. What’s going on?”
“A burglar alarm went off in the Gerhardt building. You guys been poking around in there?”
“No, man, come on. We're goin’ to the 7-11 for burritos. We didn't hear any alarm, and we just walked past the joint.”
I was telling the truth, and he believed it.
“You guys wait here,” he said, “I’ll check out the building. Stick around, there’s something I want to show you.”
After determining that the alarm had been false, the cop in the second cruiser drove away and Sgt. Bill returned as promised. He opened the passenger door and said, “Get in.” I got in front, Salty in back.
“Here, look at this,” Sgt. Bill said. He produced a few typewritten sheets of paper.
“What is it?”
“It’s a poem I got from a guy in San Quentin, in for murdering his girlfriend, or his whore. He’s a pimp. It’s fantastic. Read it.”
It was a long, involved epic poem of drugs, madness, and murder, written in the darkest, nastiest, cruelest, most hard-edged inner city ghetto language I had ever heard. Thoroughly unpleasant and frightening, yet perversely fascinating. The narrator was a pimp with a monstrous cocaine habit and all the cold, violent insanity that goes with it. It told of the whore not being able to get enough money for his drugs, the pimp cursing and threatening, eventually beating her until she was dead.
“Read it out loud,” said the Sergeant, “The last part.”
Salty had been silent the whole time, but when I read the last part, he said, “Jesus...”
The whore was dead but the pimp's rage was not satisfied. He took out a knife and hacked away at the body and finally “Cut the bitch’s head off and kicked it out the door.”
At this last part Sgt. Bill was beside himself. He was genuinely worked up, loving it.
“God, that’s FANTASTIC,” he said. “Read it again.”
Salty was staring hard at the Sergeant. So was I.
I read it again and the Sergeant started sweating and hooting out loud, almost in convulsions.
“Yeah, yeah,” he shouted, “That's great, wow!”
“Hey, we gotta get some burritos,” said Salty. Salty was a bizarre guy, but this was getting too weird even for him.
“Yeah, right,” I said. “Hey Bill, uh, thanks for letting me read the poem. We need something to eat.”
Sgt. Bill composed himself and said, “Okay guys. Stay out of trouble, huh?”
Znargh -- from “Zharghmobile.” Eventually came to mean anything ugly and/or dangerous, particularly submerged marine wreckage or other navigational hazards. “Watch out for that znargh, dead ahead.”
Douchenozzleowitzski, BombachurchBukowski -- poem (titled “Bottom Job On Nightmare Beach”) reflecting several waterfront colloquialisms of the period, Reggae rhetoric and important literary influences. Done in bottom paint on the “Happiness.” The word “douchebag,” introduced to the local jargon as a catch-all term by Jim Gibbons, enjoyed a period of great notoriety, with at least as many meanings and semantic variations as “fuck.” “Nozzle” took on multiple meanings as well, and the compound “douchenozzle” enjoyed various interpretations. “Owitzski” came from the practice of combining various Jewish and Polish name suffixes. Taken past the edge of silliness, this (pre-political correctness) syllable-wrenching produced such utterances as “Gold-Silver-Baum-Bloom-Stein-Berg-Owitz-ski.” Goldie, a Jew from New Jersey, took particular delight in this. “Bombachurch” is from a Bob Marley and the Wailers song. “...And I feel like bombing a church...Now that you know the preacher is lying.” “Bukowski” should need no explanation.
“I am a hoo-hah of the hoo-hah, but my old lady is of the other persuasion” -- Green Slime's explanation of the difficulties stemming from being brought up Catholic and marrying a Jewish woman. This statement was made one Thanksgiving to the befuddlement of a couple who were someone’s outside friends and making their first visit to the waterfront, and was oft-quoted.
Shit-pie Doodle -- Janice Speck’s term for twinkies, ding-dongs and the like.
“Stinking pathetic ghoul music” -- My comment on a Bobby Goldsboro song.
“What loco motive got me on this train of thought?” -- Dredge
“Inability to concentrate on long-range goals is a lower middle class syndrome” -- Buck Knight said it; he probably read it somewhere. It certainly applied to me.
Buck Bubbles and his Biodegradable Booze Band -- There were no musicians in the group, and Gibbons was the drummer. They wrote a song about serial killer Juan Corona, to the tune of “Wolverton Mountain”:
They say don’t go to Yuba City
If you’re lookin’ for a job
‘Cause Juan Corona has a sharp machete
And he’s workin’ for Beezlebub
“Physical Ed, smells like he's dead, like a coat he got from a bum.” -- Kathy Ash’s ode to Joey Crunch's cousin,
Eddie Crash -- So called for his tendency to pass out instantly when drunk, even when walking, for instance on a narrow plank across water. He took some good tumbles and splashes. Also known as Ed the Bed.
Wowie Zowie Zorcho Zingbop -- According to Joe Tate, what it felt like to be high on mescaline in those days.
“Wonderful” Russell Grisham -- a Krishna groupie. Not actually one of those people chanting in robes, he liked the idea of it but apparently didn’t want to get really involved. So he built his houseboat to look like the Taj Mahal, with a little white dome, and followed the Krishnas around and argued their case to anyone who would listen. A devotee of the devotees. Achieved his fifteen minutes of fame in the San Francisco Chronicle front-page photo of tense confrontation between him and a Marin County sheriff when his houseboat was towed to the heliport for “abatement” -- the famous gun and knife shot.
Mr. Joy -- Parking lot weirdo who walked around bent over like a hunchback, looking up sideways at people and saying, with a miserably pained expression, “My name is John O’ Connor and I bring joy.” Once attacked Captain Garbage with a propane tank.
“Every creep has an asshole, but not every asshole has a creep.” -- Jack the Fluke on the difference an asshole and a creep.
“I don’t know nothin’ about the law except how to get in trouble.” -- Brian “Beppo” Petersen on legal matters.
“I feel bad when I win and worse when I lose” -- “Free” Steve Webber, a US Navy veteran, on poker.
THE STORY OF “ST. MARTIN OF THE BRIDGE”
He was only person I ever knew who went around calling everyone “brother” and really meant it. “Brother” Martin had all the characteristics of a religious pilgrim without belonging to any order or discipline, a “seeker” in the true sense. The problem was, he wasn’t finding the answers and it frustrated him. Eventually, Brother Martin tried more and stronger drugs, including Rubber Duck, apparently to no avail. As his behavior became more and more unorthodox, people said he was crazy, and Brother Martin went on the Sausalito waterfront’s growing list of tolerated borderline or outright lunatics.
But like any “crazy” or “psychotic” person, Martin had some clear insights into many human problems and contradictions. A gentle man, he sincerely wondered about the institution of marriage. His own wife had driven him away by having overt affairs with a number of different men. Rather than curse her or them, Martin stood back and examined the wisdom of rigid lifetime commitment, and not surprisingly found it lacking. Brother Martin was also troubled by money, and how it took over people’s lives. When I discussed these matters with him, he didn’t seem crazy at all.
The band was playing one night at Saul Rouda’s movie studio at the old Bob’s Boatyard by the Napa Street Pier. It was a typical Redlegs party, with everybody dancing and drunk or high on something, and utterly unpredictable. The first surprise that night was the arrival of June Pointer, who asked to sing with the band.
“What do you want to sing?” I asked her, having never heard a single Pointer Sisters record.
“Wang Dang Doodle.” She was tipping and teetering, and sort of giggling. This wasn’t the first party she’s been to that night.
“How’s it go?”
“You know, Wang Dang Doodle...”
I didn’t know. I looked at Kim, and he didn’t know. Joey didn’t know. Joe was out somewhere, but was I sure he didn’t know. So she just started singing. We found the key and faked it. Years later I heard the record and laughed because it only had one chord, so I figure it must have been all right.
After June dissolved into the crowd, we began another song and Brother Martin appeared in front of the band. He had an intense look in his eye, and he was staring right at me. As the band played on, he kept the intense eye-to-eye contact going and reached into his pocket. First, he pulled out a twenty dollar bill. Next, a Bic lighter. I was getting interested now.
“Go ahead, I yelled over the music. “Go for it.”
Martin shook his head.
“Do it, Martin! Burn it up!”
He shook his head again, but kept holding out the money and lighter. I pointed at myself and he nodded. He wanted me to do it. First, he gave me the bill, indicating that I could just keep it if I wanted, but something felt important about this, something bigger than a mere twenty dollars. But why didn’t he just burn the twenty himself? Martin held out the lighter. I turned to Joey and Kim and motioned them to keep playing.
With the bill in my left hand, the lighter in my right, the bass and drums churning away and Brother Martin standing there like a mad soothsayer, I lit the money and held it until only a burning corner remained in my hand. It fell to the floor, I stomped it out and that was it.
Or was it? Brother Martin continued to suffer under the strain of day-to-day mundane life, finding nothing to encourage his quest for meaning. Less than a year after the money burning incident he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, going down in the records as number six hundred thirty-something.
It wasn’t long after Martin’s death that I started getting strange phone calls from back east. The calls came in at the stern apartment of the Oakland, which was odd in itself. The place was occupied at the time by Jack Hurley. Jack had authored his own deck of tarot cards, and he and his wife, Rae, were into some occult and esoteric activities that would have been cause for much suspicion outside the waterfront, or a lynching outside of California. Hurley had predicted some sort of major event in my life. It was never made clear how or why the calls came to his place.
The first call was from Bob Shearer, who had been the singer in my first rock and roll band back in Unionville, Connecticut. He told me a detective was looking for me. The search had started at my ten-year high school reunion. No one there had known where I was, but my former classmates suggested the detective look up Shearer.
Shearer suggested I call a certain reporter from the Hartford Courant, who was also involved in the search, but he also advised me to be careful if I was involved with drugs or any other illegal activities. Which of course I was. So I told him to give Hurley’s number to the reporter and she could call me if it was that big a deal.
The reporter called the next day. She was very excited and admitted that getting me on the phone meant a scoop for her. I was the object of a national search. She wouldn’t give me all the details, but did tell me my grandmother had died and left me a sizable inheritance. I authorized her to give the phone number to the detective who called almost immediately. He drilled me with questions about my personal life and got some long-lost relatives in on a conference call. When the relatives were satisfied with who I was, the detective told me the amount of the inheritance was $20,000.
Somewhere between the time of the phone calls and the arrival of the check, I was struck with a vision of Brother Martin and the twenty dollar bill. No one in the pragmatic world of scientific cause-and-effect would swallow this for a second, but there are times when you know something intuitively. And what I knew at that moment was that I had been given a twenty dollar bill by a “crazy” man who had clear and disturbing visions, I had burned the bill ceremoniously at his insistence, he had committed suicide in the most grandiose manner possible, dying in the water on which my home floated, and shortly thereafter I had received messages, at the home of a known psychic, telling me I had inherited twenty thousand dollars. As for the inheritance itself, I’ll just say that it came at the worst possible time, and I made no sound investments.
BEYOND SCROOGE -- CHRISTMAS ON SPEED AND MDA
“Oh yeah, listen to THIS,” I said to the happy carolers after enduring their versions of two or three traditional Christmas songs:
“On the last say of Christmas my true love gave to me
Twelve bummers humming
Eleven lepers leaping
Ten hookers hitching
Nine toms a-peeping
Eight maidens mooing
Seven schwantzes schtupping
Six beasts a-baying
Five moldy things
Four falling turds
Three drenched hens
Two dirty gloves
And a narc hiding in a bare tree.”
“That’s UGLY,” said the bespectacled little girl as the rest of the roving singers looked at me in horror.
It was the Christmas I’d like to forget, solid evidence of my descent into the dark side of the drug experience. I’d been up on crank for two or three nights and couldn’t find any more, but there was some MDA around. On the way back from getting the MDA I ran into April the groupie/junkie, who had some meth and agreed to trade some with me.
She invited me to dinner; naturally I declined, not being hungry at all and anxious to get on with getting off. Even in the drug world, there’s a certain amount of decorum involved, and I waited as she started cooking. We did the trade and I decided to mix the speed with the MDA, mixing them in the spoon and shooting them up together. The combination multiplied the effects of both, and my body and brain were instantly surging with electric heat.
I talked rapidly and crazily at April as she ate her pork chops, potatoes and gravy. After all, the polite thing was to stay until she got high, too. She finished the meal and wasted no time preparing her injection. When the dope hit her she began talking in the same manic fashion. Suddenly she said, “Excuse me.” Casually, she stepped outside and vomited. It was one of those long, singing, gurgling high-powered projections she had become famous for. This was my cue to leave, not that vomiting was socially unacceptable. I had other reasons for not wanting to hang around, not the least of which was that she might want to have sex, and puking could have been considered a breach of decorum if it came to that. Besides, it was Christmas Eve and I had some things to do.
For me, no amount of objectivity, cynicism or protest can completely overcome what we know as the “spirit of Christmas.” No matter how hard I may fight it, a twinge of sentiment gets me sooner or later in the season.
Michael Young once remarked, “I go places where they’re eating spaghetti with no meat in the sauce but they see the dope and out comes the money.” The people he was talking about weren’t vegetarians, they thought of a meal as incomplete without meat but were always ready to sacrifice nutrition for drugs...
I had sacrificed Christmas for drugs this time. That particular combination of drugs created a sensation of excitement, well-being, and a strange warmth all through my body, and the comedown the next morning was a disastrous feeling of depression, existential horror and cold. I lay all day under every blanket in the boat, shivering, being rude to Christmas visitors, and feeling all the guilt over Christmas that I’d laughed at and shrugged off the night before.
Drugs were getting to be not so wonderful.
The band began to degenerate, for the usual reasons and probably more.
Drugs... Remember, this was the end of the sixties. Everyone was having a good old time, smoking pot and drinking beer. Everyone in the band had taken LSD, and had some form of “transforming,” or “mind-expanding” trip. (I use those terms cautiously. There are no words adequate to describe the psychedelic experience.)
Joey Brennan, the drummer, was probably the best musician in the Redlegs band. Drums were his only instrument, but he was better and more musical at them than any drummer I or anyone else in the Redlegs had ever worked with. After Joe Tate bought the Richmond, it began to consume more and more of his energy. His playing began to suffer and this troubled -- no, disgusted -- Joey. What also bothered Joey, and me as well, was that Joe Tate seemed to be developing a chronic case of “something to prove,” competing with other men on the waterfront to see who could complete the biggest, baddest boat project, getting involved in some kind of machismo sweepstakes.
“I came here to play music and I don’t give a shit about boats,” was Joey’s statement on the matter. We might have seen this as an indication that Joey had no intention of going on the “big” boat trip and that it was therefore ultimately doomed, but by then no one was seeing, or really wanted to see, the situation clearly.
Joey started protesting. If Tate was playing badly or out of tune, Joey would get off his drum stool and move Joe’s amplifier, pointing the speakers away so he wouldn’t have to hear so much of it. But the more significant sign of Joey’s dissatisfaction was his increasing use of heroin. This coincided with my own use of methamphetamine. Thus Joey and I, the musical partners that had come to California together with a musical dream and realized it, began to drift apart. On our trip from L.A. to San Francisco, we had picked up a pair of hitchhikers, a young man and woman. The woman was a speed freak and the man was a downer-head who lived on barbiturates, or narcotics when he could get them. During their ride with us they argued constantly, each belittling the other’s choice of drugs. This had been a long-standing joke with Joey and me, and now it was happening to us.
Maggie dealt with all this by continuing to write her own songs and do her various art projects, and Kim, like always, didn’t seem to care much one way or the other.
One reasonably certain sign that a musical group is past its peak and beginning the disintegration process is the addition of new members. (There’s a metaphor for economic growth here somewhere...) Along with increasing drug problems and the deteriorating big-boat situation, the band’s musical direction was changing.
Joe’s early musical and performance influences in his home town of St. Louis, besides his mother’s hellfire and brimstone Pentecostal tent revivals, had been rhythm & blues musicians like Chuck Berry and Ike Turner. Some of his own songs reflected these, but he’d also listened to softer, more melodic stuff like Brazilian jazz as well as classical and folk music, and to me, his most interesting stuff was the eclectic mix of all these styles in combination with the “psychedelic,” folk-rock, “California” sound that came from just being there. The Redlegs’ sound, at best, was all this with a bit of salt water and sail canvas added.
But now Joe was defaulting to his roots. The “big, California” sound I liked so much was giving way to choppier beats and more mundane lyrics. We played more R&B songs; Joe seemed to want a sound like Ike & Tina Turner’s. To this end three female backup singers were recruited. They would be called the “Bagettes,” named partly for San Francisco’s famous sourdough bread loaves (baguettes), but also for other, shall we say more colorful, uses of the word “bag.”
The Bagettes were Cici Wilcoxon, Francine Lowenberg and Carol Joy Harris. Cici was a waterfront regular who maintained an outside solo career in music and theater. Francine was a bona fide “valley girl,” a recent arrival from the south who had taken up with our part-time piano player, Adam. She could sing a bitchin’ version of “Angel Baby.” Carol Joy was also new on the scene. She was by conventional standards the best singer of the trio and sang with two or three different groups. For all their respective talent, however, the Bagettes did not sound like the Ikettes.
We had fairly well stopped playing the best of our music, and in other ways, little by little, cooperation between us all was fading. Joe was bothered by Joey’s refusal to get involved with the Richmond. After all, it was supposed to be for the band. But Joey saw Tate’s dedication to the boat as abandonment of any meaningful commitment to music, and it was the drummer’s keen intention to do whatever it took advance his own musical evolution, and if possible, career. At one point he joined another group, called Bonewhite. This caught Tate’s attention. He and I drove to their rehearsal space in San Anselmo and listened to them. To us, it seemed like a joke. It sounded as if they were writing their arrangements around Joey’s drumming style and if he stopped playing, the rest of them would fall helplessly to the floor. Besides, in those days, most activities being conducted on land by landlubbers seemed to me shallow, colorless, two-dimensional. “Reality-lite.” (After you’ve been bailing a leaking boat with a five gallon bucket for a few hours, or sailed in a storm fully expecting not to survive, it’s difficult to sympathize with someone who’s upset over a stain on the carpet or complaining of the sniffles). But after we “rescued” Joey back from the land of the half-dead, he continued his descent into the Land of the Living Dead, or the “Enchantress” -- heroin. Towards the end, our gigs became nightmares of misplaced priorities. Joey had to have dope, I had to have speed. Joe liked drugs but didn’t need them; his larger weakness was girls. Kim, who didn’t care much for the hard drugs, could occasionally drink himself senseless. And Maggie, for her part, dabbled in all the drugs but tried to maintain a relentlessly positive attitude toward the whole scene. For this, I ridiculed her as a “Pollyanna.”
The honeymoon was over, way over.
Joey tried going into drug detox but made the mistake of going with Fat Pat. Together, they gobbled all the valiums in the place and scored a bag the minute the came out.
The great drummer, Joey “Crunch” Brennan was a Gemini and true to all the astrological clichés, had two personalities and was often terribly indecisive. He even wrote a song about himself, called “Mama Get the Hammer”:
Mama get the hammer, there’s a fly on Junior’s head
Sister get the zip-gun, in case it isn’t dead
Poor little Junior was born with two heads
Stick him in the closet, stand him on his heads...
...Junior gets sad and filled with despair
For all the people with only one head to wear...
But there came a moment when Joey made a decision. In order to get off heroin and save his own life, he would have to return to New York and put himself in the care of his strict Irish immigrant mother. Once this decision was made, it could not be reversed. He quit the band.
THE AIRPORT INCIDENT
When Joey left I’d been up for three days on speed, and on the way to the airport I polished off a pint of Jack Daniels. I was in that alternate reality called “amphetamine psychosis,” or “paranoid schizophrenia.” At the time I considered this a normal state of mind.
Joey's departure meant the end of the band, for real, and it was difficult for me to accept this fact. Most of my identity was invested in the band -- far more, I think, than the rest of them. I was hanging on by a frayed thread.
Inside the United terminal I went to take a leak and caught my reflection in the mirror. The image I saw looked like it belonged in a strait jacket. Sunglasses became an immediate, desperate necessity. I had money but it seemed like the natural thing to steal them, so I found the right kind and boosted them, not more than two feet away from a San Mateo County sheriff. I didn't know he was there until he tapped me on the shoulder.
“Where are you going with those glasses?”
“How about if I just put them back?”
“Do you have I.D.?” I looked. I didn’t.
“Too bad. That means I have to put you under arrest.”
I didn't get a chance to say good-bye to Joey. In the airport substation, the cop told me to empty my pockets. Out came the comb, cigarettes, wallet, a few crumpled bills, and the short plastic straw with the bag of white powder rolled up inside.
“Now this intrigues me,” he said, rolling the straw between his thumb and forefinger. “What is it?”
“Methedrine,” I replied, “You know, speed, crystal.”
“You mean like bennies or diet pills?”
“Yeah, but this is methamphetamine hydrochloride, it’s highly refined, the best.”
“I see. And what do you do, take a sniff of this when you want a little pick-me-up?”
He signalled to another, younger cop, who grabbed my arms and pushed up my sleeves, exposing several fresh puncture marks. He nearly spit. “When was the last time you shot up ?”
If there had been any levity in the room, it was gone now. I kept quiet. Now I was in a league with murderers and child molesters. They booked and handcuffed me, and shoved me into a squad car next to a wimpy-looking businessman whose crime had been telling a hijack joke in the airport.
At the San Mateo County Jail in Redwood City, I made my phone call, to Maggie. I was so deranged, I kept referring to the cop who busted me as my friend . He stood next to me, laughing.
In the corridor on the way to the holding cell, a strip-search was in progress. A tall, thin dark-haired man, obviously crazed on coke or speed, was spread-eagled against the wall naked, as a rubber-gloved cop poked a metal rod up his ass. I resolved never to hide anything up mine.
I heard a voice, a vaguely familiar voice. The voice was coming from the holding cell. It was singing, “It had to be you...”
As I neared the cell, I saw the Sun King. He shouted my name and started singing. “Jeffrey, Jeffrey! It had to be yooouu.......”
The other prisoners, who were sitting far away from him as possible, turned and looked at me. Here was no doubt the craziest, most repulsive individual possible, a jailhouse nightmare who had alienated every low-life criminal and fiend in the place, and he was greeting me like a lost brother. I might have opted for a strip-search.
He started babbling at me right away, and I did my best to ignore him and keep looking at the floor. Luckily for me, he was next in line for processing.
One of the men in the cell kept complaining indignantly, insisting repeatedly to no one in particular, “There's been a MISTAKE. I don’t know why I’m HERE. I want to know WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON. I don't BELONG here.” As he paced and strutted around the cell in a mighty attempt to preserve his dignity, I wondered where he thought he did belong. In a luxury suite surrounded by beautiful women? Pitching in the World Series? In the White House, maybe?
Right next to the holding cell there was a metal cabinet. One cop was constantly opening and closing its doors, and there was the constant sound of metal banging on metal. On closer scrutiny, I discovered that the cabinet was full of restraint gear: handcuffs, leg irons, billy clubs, blackjacks, metal rods...and there was something funny about the cop. He wasn’t actually doing anything with the stuff except fondling it. Every few minutes he’d come back to the cabinet, open the doors, and pick up an item. He'd get a faraway gleam in his eye and stroke the pain-inflicting objects. He took a set of handcuffs and rubbed them up and down his cheek, like a child with a teddy bear.
After dinner, a bowl of glutinous slime, my name was called and I was processed -- fingerprints, photograph, orange jumpsuit and rubber flip-flop slippers. I sat in a cell with the other newly-costumed inmates, engaged in the inevitable “What Are You In For?” discussion. I was on safe ground here; my response of “drugs and shoplifting” was greeted amiably. The guy next to me did a pantomime of shooting dope and looked at me questioningly. I showed him my arms, and he grinned his approval.
After a while we were escorted to our assigned cells. Mine was overcrowded and the only place to rest was the floor. There was a cement picnic table in the cell, with a poker game in progress. The table was covered with packs of cigarettes, serious loot in the slam.
Two young black athletic types jogged in place, running up the walls, counting every step, determined to stay in shape. There was a TV in one corner, and several white men were watching a German prison movie.
I was starting to come down, and things looked grim, but I was struck by one thing: nowhere had I seen such careful, painstaking good manners .
Every single man in that cell was the picture of courtesy. There were no indignant men here.
At ten o'clock the lights went out. The poker game had ended and I stretched out under the cement table, falling into a twitchy amphetamine sleep. The bell rang at six in the morning. My pounding headache reminded me that I was not only crashing from speed, but hung over from whiskey. We were marched into the main hall for breakfast, watery, bitter coffee and a bowl of cream of wheat with a definite taste of diesel fuel. I was sitting there trying to eat when the Sun King found me.
“Good morning, Jeffrey,” he said, his eyes bulging out bigger than golf balls. “I’m happy. GOD, I’m HAPPY. All men are stars, and all stars are connected, and that's why I’m so HAPPY.”
He started singing in that horrible Johnny Mathis vibrato.
“Wanderlust, boom boom boom BOOM boom boom....”
I gave him the iciest glare I could, and he quieted down.
“I’ve got a present for you,” he said, and reached into his jumpsuit. He pulled out a pouch of Bull Durham and some rolling papers.
“Where did you get THAT?”
“I stole it from a guy in my cell.”
I looked around, fully expecting a furious, snarling monster to appear and murder the Sun King and me with one blow. In his utterly irreparable, out-of-this-world insanity, the Sun King had committed the worst in-house sin. NOBODY stole a man's tobacco in jail.
“Give it back,” I told him.
“I can’t. He’d kill me. They all think I'm CRAZY.”
It was too late. He left the pouch on the table and walked away, singing. “It had to be yoouuuu....”
I stuffed the Bull Durham into my pocket and slouched back to the cell, trying to be invisible. The prisoners were waiting their turns at the toilet in the corner. Once again, impeccable courtesy was the thing, but the air and noises in the room could only be compared to an Interstate truck stop men's room at peak morning rush. To keep from gagging, everyone smoked heavily and breathed through his mouth.
At nine o'clock, the trusties came around calling names. It was time for court. We were taken into a corridor and chained together in groups of six. To my horror, I saw the Sun King being led to my group. To my wonder and amazement, he didn’t mention the Bull Durham. He didn’t even speak to me. He just stared at the ceiling chanting, “I’m happy, I’m just an orange on a tree, I have no mind.”
We rode to the courthouse in a green school bus and were put in another holding cell. A man in a suit stuck his head into the room and asked, “Does anyone in here want a Public Defender?” He was greeted with total silence. When he was halfway out the door I snapped out of it and said, “Yeah, I do.”
He sat me down in a cubicle and explained that since there was no previous record, I could plead guilty to shoplifting, and the “narco beef” would be dropped. I would get off with a suspended sentence and summary probation, which meant I didn't have to report to anyone. I wondered aloud why none of the other prisoners had opted for a P.D.
“Those guys are going back to the joint,” he said. “They’re resigned to it. Totally institutionalized. By the way, if you don't get busted in San Mateo County for eighteen months, your record will be wiped.”
WHAT DOES FUCKABUNCHABULLSHIT MEAN?
The waterfront, as Joey the drummer sometimes described it, was free, freaky and loose. The only laws in effect were the laws of nature and physics. You can’t thumb your nose at a 6O mile-an-hour wind or deny the necessity of fixing a hole in a sinking boat, but the boundaries of human behavior, morality and conventional wisdom were tested, pushed and stretched in all directions.
One of my first revelations there was small but significant: Nothing horrible will happen if your socks don’t match. In high school I would have skipped a day rather than show up with different color socks on. How much time and energy had I wasted in the past worrying about such trivial things?
That little realization opened up a world of questions about everyday things normally taken for granted, assumed to be correct. When, with a little scrutiny, the seeming validity of much of what I had learned growing up in America fell apart like a cheap suitcase, I began to understand why: a great deal of “normal” human behavior was based on fear, and most of the fear was based on bullshit.
There were the little fears, like someone might make fun of you if your socks don’t match. And there were the big fears, like if you go sailing in rough weather you might be capsized and drown. Or if you take LSD you might go crazy and “never come back.” On the waterfront, people regularly confronted such fears, deliberately or not.
These largely unavoidable confrontations were great equalizers, and functioned wonderfully as population control. Those who couldn’t handle the combination of immediate everyday survival and lack of official authority figures didn’t last long, and usually retreated to the normal world to take comfort in the safety of conventional bullshit like the importance of matching socks.
In the movie “King Of Hearts,” a small French town is evacuated during World War II. The only people left are the inmates of the insane asylum, who escape and enter the empty town. They gravitate naturally to different environments. One man finds the barbershop and starts giving haircuts. Another winds up in the circus and immediately retrains the animals. Likewise the grocer, the prostitute, musicians, etc. It turns out they weren’t crazy at all, they had been punished for being themselves.
The waterfront was the first place I had ever seen where you weren’t punished for being yourself. No wonder outsiders likened it to an insane asylum. For one thing, no one was ever told “no.” Artistic expression was never called frivolous or silly. It was encouraged because it was necessary. When Joey said, “If I couldn’t play the drums, I’d probably kill somebody,” he wasn’t kidding. If he started playing them in the middle of the night, no one told him to stop. Instead, other insomniac musicians usually showed up with their instruments. In the world of mandatory matching socks, this sort of thing isn’t allowed.
The old “Brown House” was located at the edge of the parking lot near the Oakland pier. It was a sort of community center where we had dinners, poker games, and such. One day I found a can of beige paint and a ladder, and painted a huge cartoon brain with a cartoon dagger sticking into it on the side of the Brown House. Under the brain I painted the words “Brane Damage.” I spelled “Brain” that way purposely. No one thought any of it even a bit odd. No one was offended. The only comment I got was from Mary Winn, who said, “You spelled ‘damage’ wrong.”
My only other attempt at art in the paint medium was on the roof of the Hot Molecule. The SFO helicopter flew directly over our houseboat several times a day. To express my aggravation with the noise, I painted a whirling helicopter rotor on one half of the roof, and on the other half, the words “Fuck You.”
“WELCOME TO THE LAND OF THE LIVING DEAD”
It was Joanie, of Fat Pat and Joanie, that said this when she greeted me at the door of the pilot house on the roof of the Oakland. She and Fat Pat were junkies, openly and unapologetically addicted to heroin. They had glass syringes kept in velvet-lined cases, just like Sherlock Holmes. A big shipment of junk had arrived in town, and I was invited to share the bounty.
The room was full of people in various stages of preparing and shooting dope, and unlike many such scenes the mood here was light, almost a party atmosphere; there was more than enough heroin to go around and it had been cheap.
Most heavy drug addicts maintain a surprisingly clear insight into their condition, and Joanie’s “living dead” greeting was humor based on truth. Her eyes were ringed with wide, dark circles and her skin was that grey-green color that the drug crowd called an indoor tan. Looking around the room, one could easily have described everyone there as zombies.
I used one of the glass syringes. The dope was good and in a few seconds I felt fine, very nice. If I looked like a corpse too, it didn’t matter. Why worry about what other people think?
Everyone hears about the horrors of drugs, especially junk, but while its eventual negative effects are very bad, its good side is very good. Just like that, it wipes away your physical discomforts and leaves you feeling warm all over. What it also does is dissolve all your neuroses and worries, leaving you with a mind clear of bullshit.
I went downstairs to the shop and plunked around on the piano, working out an arrangement for Joe’s latest song, “A Matter of Time.” Maggie came in and we worked on vocal backgrounds. Joanie and Fat Pat, big Redlegs fans, came downstairs. They were in jolly spirits and wanted to sing a song. Why not, we said, and they did:
Well, I don’t like the way you comb your hair
I don’t like the way you act so square
Every time you’re here you make me feel like shit
Baby you’re just gonna have to split
Fuck you I hate you, split, baby
Fuck you I hate you, split, baby
Fuck you I hate you, split, baby
Ain’t no jive you’re leavin’ dead or alive
A few years later and a few miles farther down the drug road, I really did look like a cadaver when I had a visit from Bill Hall, the perennial candidate for mayor of Mill Valley and secretary-treasurer of the Gypsy Jokers motorcycle club. Hall was regarded as somewhat eccentric, perhaps due to the fact that he kept a working slot machine in his living room and slept in a coffin. He and his girlfriend Caroline were on their way to a party and dressed in all black. With his greased black hair and gaunt features, he looked like a smiling vampire. Caroline in her black velvet dress was the image of Morticia Addams.
They wanted to invite me to the party, but I just been through an agonizing paranoid session in the mirror and felt it would best not to go anywhere. I didn’t mention this, but they sensed it. Spontaneously, in unison, they said, “Come on with us. You’re looking really good today.” I had been a week with hardly any sleep or food, could have starred in a walking-corpse movie with no makeup, and these two ghoulish-looking figures were telling me how wonderful I looked.
How much further could it all go?
• • • •
NOSTALGIA WITH AN ATTITUDE
Most everybody on the waterfront was apolitical, at least until the shit hit the fan on our own doorstep. In the early “good old” days we had a single token political guy. He was from Berkeley, and he was our pet Communist. It was comical but sometimes annoying to see him parading around in his army fatigues, chanting “Power to the People,” “We Must Unite Against the Oppressors” and such, because at the time we had a beautifully spontaneous, completely unself-conscious, natural anarchy going. This guy was right in the middle of it and couldn’t see it, because we weren’t militant. In time he exposed himself, literally and figuratively. Every time the band played, he threw off his clothes and cavorted obstreperously through the crowds, his fist raised, yelling slogans and demanding “More! More!” from the band. He was the first Militant Naked Person I’d ever seen. At one time or another, everyone on the waterfront was a thief, including the Communist, but he didn’t steal things. He “Liberated them for The People,” and “The People” was always him.
The waterfront was Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll, but it was also Boats, Seamanship and Survival. There was no inclination for such foolishness as political posturing or getting a job. If California fell into the sea or the Russians took over or the Plague broke out, all we had to do was untie our lines and sail into the sunset. Nobody actually said these things; it wasn’t necessary. We felt that way and we all knew it.
When landlubbers came to visit, you could see the fear in their eyes. You could see how demonstrably clumsy they were when they walked on the docks or came aboard your boat. I know because I arrived there awkward and fearful. The waterfront created a frightening picture for the average person in TV-watching America, where incompetence, mediocrity and fear are encouraged and rewarded with the reassurance that you are just like everybody else.
• • •